The Love Suicides at Amijima
The Love Suicides at Amijima (Shinjū Ten no Amijima or Shinjūten no Amijima 心中天網島) is a domestic play (sewamono) by Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Originally written for the jōruri puppet theatre, it was adapted into kabuki shortly after its premiere. The play is one of Chikamatsu's more famous plays.
It was first performed 3 January 1721. Like The Love Suicides at Sonezaki it is supposedly based on a real love-suicide, but no original event has ever been identified, even after examinations of newspapers around 13 November 1720 (the date tradition holds the real love-suicide happened). Takano Masami has suggested that Chikamatsu based his play on the 1706 play The Love Suicides at Umeda by a rival playwright, Ki no Kaion.
The work concerns two lovers who cannot be together because of social and political situations, and are so blinded by love that they commit the gravest act, suicide. The play deals with turbulent and intense emotions. "Neither kind advice nor reason can gain the ear of one possessed by the god of Death. . ." yet, it also has the humor that is always greatly appreciated in plays. The Love Suicides at Amijima can go from darkly brooding to light fanfare in an instant. Chikamatsu uses very coarse humor and song to entertain the audience. "Jihei is worthless as wastepaper, Which is not good enough, Even to blow the nose with. Namida! Namida! Namida!"
It is a typical three-act play. Chikamatsu emphasizes the insanity of the amorous pair, Jihei and Koharu. He does so by making many of the supporting characters overtly rational and commonly berating the mental capacity of the lovers, which is another way of comic relief.
The play, both beautiful and tragic, ends with Jihei ending Koharu’s life by his sword. Soon after Jihei takes his own life by hanging himself from a nearby tree and then found strung by the rope he had hanged himself with in the nearby river. One of the well-remembered lines in the play is one of the last few words shared by the lovers: “Let us leave no trace of tears upon our dead faces.”
The Love Suicides at Amijima is perhaps more tragic because the main characters' lives are already quite bad to begin with. They are both poor and indebted to others. People in Japan could probably easily relate to the issues that plagued the protagonist. Jihei needed to focus his energy on something other than his meager life and weak family bonds, so he places himself within the outskirts of town.
The play was first staged during the Seventeenth-Century Boom, when many famines killed thousands, infanticide was being practiced with overwhelming numbers, and living costs were rising. Many people during this time could relate to Jihei’s need for more in his life, his business failures, and his fascination with the beautiful Koharu.
Koharu is a 19-year-old prostitute at the Kinokuni House in Sonezaki, who is being competed for by Kamiya Jihei (a struggling 28-year-old married paper merchant with two children) and Tahei (the wealthy and arrogant merchant nicknamed "the Lone Wolf" for his lack of family and possibly friends). She loves Jihei and does her best to avoid Tahei, but one night she has a samurai customer over at Kawachi House. She makes her way through the streets of the pleasure quarter but doesn't quite avoid Tahei. Tahei follows her in and boastingly propositions her. The samurai shows up, head encased in a deep wicker hat to preserve his anonymity. Tahei peers in and is frightened away by the samurai's fierce eyes. The samurai is then examined by Koharu's maid. Satisfied that he is not Jihei, she leaves the two alone to do what they will.
The samurai reproaches the proprietress and Koharu: he had come all the way there, at considerable trouble to clear the overnight visit with his superiors, and they have treated him shamefully and not made his visit pleasant at all, with a poor welcome and a gloomy Koharu. Koharu begins talking to him, but asks him such morbid questions about suicide that the samurai is positively nonplussed by such morbidity. They move to a room by the garden so the samurai "can at least distract ourselves by looking at the lanterns" since Koharu's conversation is certainly not distracting. Jihei creeps around outside that room, resolving that he will signal her somehow and the two will run off and commit suicide together, like Koharu had promised him.
The samurai guesses as much as some suicidal pact had been agreed upon between Koharu and Jihei and that this pact is the reason for her unhappiness; he begs her to confide in him. She gratefully does, and confesses that while she had indeed promised to kill herself with Jihei since he was financially incapable of ransoming her and her contract had more than five years left to run — if another were to ransom her, the shame would be intolerable —, but that she had promised hastily and did not really feel like dying. Would the samurai agree to be her customer for a year and so thwart Jihei? The samurai agrees.
Jihei overhears everything and is infuriated by her treachery. Her request is the final straw, and he begins positioning himself to stab Koharu to death. His short sword penetrates the shōji, but does not reach Koharu. The samurai reacts almost instantly, seizing Jihei's arms and tying him to the wood lattice.
Along comes Tahei, who sees Jihei standing there in the shadows and begins beating him, calling Jihei a thief and convicted criminal. The samurai rushes out, and when Tahei cannot specify what exactly Jihei stole, hurls Tahei under Jihei's feet to trample to his heart's content. Tahei then ignominiously flees.
The samurai looses Jihei and the hood of his cloak. Jihei instantly recognizes the samurai as his brother Magoemon, a flour merchant, nicknamed the Miller. Magoemon reproaches Jihei, laying out the stress on his marriage, his finances, his business, and his extended family that his infatuation with this fickle prostitute has caused, all because Jihei was naïve enough to take her at face value. Jihei contritely admits his fault and announces that any relationship between him and Koharu is over. He returns to Koharu the 29 letters and oaths of love she sent him, and asks Magoemon to take back his corresponding 29 tokens. Magoemon retrieves them all, and a woman's letter besides. Seeing that it is from Jihei's wife, Kamiya Osan, he stashes it away and promises Koharu that none but him shall read it before he burns them all, on his honor as a miller. Jihei kicks Koharu as they leave, and on that note, Act 1 ends.
Act 2 opens with a charming domestic scene of Jihei sleeping in the kotatsu, while Osan tends to the paper shop and their children. The maid Tama returns with the daughter Osue on her back and news that Magoemon and his aunt (Osan's mother) were imminently on their way for a visit. Osan wakes Jihei, who begins industriously working through his accounts on an abacus, so as to look busy when the two arrive.
They make a great fuss on their arrival, accusing Osan and Jihei of various faults; Magoemon seizes Jihei's abacus and hurls it to the ground as emphasis. Shocked, Jihei inquires as to what could be the problem, saying he hadn't even been to the pleasure quarter since that fateful night and had not so much as even thought about Koharu.
The aunt denies his word; her husband, and Jihei's uncle, Gozaemon, had heard much gossip in the pleasure quarter that some great patron was about to ransom Koharu and he was certain that the great patron spoken of was none other than Jihei.
When Jihei hears this, he quickly explains that the patron must be Tahei; he had been unable to redeem Koharu in the past like he wanted because Jihei had always blocked his attempts, but now that Jihei had washed his hands of Koharu, there was nothing to stop him. Surely he was merely taking advantage of the situation.
Magoemon and the aunt are relieved to hear this. But Gozaemon might not be as convinced, so they ask Jihei to sign an oath on sacred paper that he will sever all relations with Koharu. Minds at peace, they leave to tell the uncle the good news.
Jihei's mind is not at peace however. He cannot forget Koharu and is weeping hot tears. Osan gives him a speech on her grievances, neglected by her formerly loving husband for no fault of her own, their business and by extension their children endangered by his fecklessness and distraction. Jihei corrects her: his grief is truly about his shame that since Koharu will allow herself to be ransomed, Tahei will crow to everyone about his victory of Jihei.
Osan tries to comfort him, pointing out that if that is the case, Koharu will probably kill herself first. Jihei will have none of this, however. To prove it, Osan reveals that she had sent Koharu a letter (the same letter read and burnt by Magoemon) begging her to somehow contrive to end the relationship with Jihei; Koharu had quite obviously fulfilled her promise to do so, and so Osan worries that Koharu will keep her other promise to kill herself should anyone but Jihei ransom her. Osan asks Jihei to save Koharu, since she does not want Koharu dead as a result of her request.
Jihei points out that the only way would be to put down as a deposit at least half Koharu's ransom in cold hard cash, but that he simply does not have that money. Osan produces more than half the requisite money, money she had been saving to pay a major wholesaler's bill and had raised by selling off her wardrobe – the money is necessary to keep the business afloat but "Koharu comes first." The rest of the money can be raised if they pawn all their finery as well.
In that finery, they set out about their mission of mercy. They are intercepted at the gate by Gozaemon, come to demand that Jihei divorce Osan. Speaking venomously all the while, he checks to see whether Osan's dowry of fine clothes was still there. They are not in the dressers. He discovers them in the bundle, and insists at once that they are going to be sold to redeem Koharu. Jihei threatens to commit suicide then and there if Gozaemon continues to press him to sign the bill of divorcement. Gozaemon relents and leaves. He takes with him Osan as Act 2 ends.
That night, Jihei leaves the House, saying he is leaving for Kyoto. Out of sight, he turns back, but narrowly misses Magoemon as he searches for Jihei. Magoemon is deeply worried about a lovers' suicide. He learns from the proprietress that Jihei had already left, mentioning a trip to Kyoto. Concerned, he asks whether Koharu is still there. Somewhat comforted by the fact that they say Koharu is upstairs sound asleep and convinced no lovers' suicide could happen that night, he leaves to search elsewhere.
Jihei is deeply touched to see that his brother is still seeking to help him and save his life, ingrate and good for nothing though Jihei is. But he is determined to go forth with the suicide, and retrieves Koharu from an unguarded side-door.
The two leave the pleasure quarter, travelling over many bridges. They stop at Amijima, at the Daichō Temple. A spot near a sluice gate of a little stream with a bamboo thicket is the spot- "No matter how far we walk, there'll never be a spot marked 'For Suicides'. Let us kill ourselves here."
Koharu implores Jihei to kill her and then himself separately; she had promised Osan not to lead Jihei into a lovers' suicide and if their bodies were discovered together, then everyone would be certain Koharu had been lying or broke her promise. To forestall this objection, Jihei and Koharu cut their hair off- now that they are a Buddhist monk or nun, no one would hold the vows of a previous life against them.
Jihei's short sword fails to pierce her windpipe with the first stab, but the second one kills her. After her death, he hangs himself from a tree by jumping off the sluice gate. Fishermen discover his body the next morning when it is washed down the stream into their nets.
Milwaukee, WI-based Dale Gutzman (book, lyrics) and Todd Wellman (score) debuted the musical adaption AmijimA in 2007. Listen to the WUWM interview with the creative team.
The Australian National University's Za Kabuki performed a version of the play in 2005, directed by Mr. Shun Ikeda.
- Major Plays of Chikamatsu, translated and introduced by Donald Keene (NY: Columbia University Press. 1961/1990), pp. 387–425.
- The Love Suicide at Amijima: A Study of a Japanese Domestic Tragedy by Chikamatsu Monzaemon
- Scan of manuscript at Waseda University Library